Frances Perkins: The First Woman to Serve in a Presidential Cabinet (2023)

Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965) was the first woman in a President's cabinet when she was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt. During Roosevelt's 12-year presidency, she played a prominent public role and was instrumental in shaping New Deal policy and important legislation such as the Social Security Act.

Her commitment to public service was greatly strengthened in 1911 when she stood on a New York City sidewalk and witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed dozens of young workers. The tragedy motivated her to work as a factory inspector and dedicate herself to promoting the rights of American workers.

Fast facts: Frances Perkins

  • Full name:Fannie Coralie Perkins
  • Known as: Frances Perkins
  • Known for: First woman in a president's cabinet; important figure in approving social insurance; Trusted and valued advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • To be born:10.04.1880 in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • He died: 14. Mai 1965 in New York City, New York
  • Spouse's Name: Paul Caldwell-Wilson
  • child name: Susana Perkins-Wilson

childhood and upbringing

Fannie Coralie Perkins (she would later adopt the first name Frances) was born April 10, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts Stationery. His parents had little formal education, but his father in particular was well read and educated in history and law.

Perkins attended Worcester Classical High School, graduating in 1898. At some point in her teens, she readHow does the other half live?vonJakob Ries, the reforming and pioneering photojournalist. Perkins later cited the book as inspiration for his life's work. she was acceptedMount Holyoke-College, although she was afraid of their strict standards. She didn't think she was very bright, but after working hard to pass a challenging chemistry class, she gained confidence.

As a senior at Mount Holyoke, Perkins took a course in American economic history. An on-site visit to local factories and mills was a prerequisite for the course. Witnessing poor working conditions firsthand had a profound impact on Perkins. She recognized that workers were being exploited in dangerous conditions and how injured workers could be forced into a life of poverty.

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Before leaving college, Perkins helped found a chapter of the National Consumers' League. The organization tried to improve working conditions and encouraged consumers not to buy products made under unsafe conditions.

career entry

After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1902, Perkins took a job as a teacher in Massachusetts and lived with her family in Worcester. At one point, she rebelled against her family's wishes and traveled to New York City to visit an agency involved in helping the poor. She insisted on getting an interview but was not hired. The organization's director thought she was naïve and assumed that Perkins would be overworked to work among the urban poor.

After two unhappy years in Massachusetts after college, Perkins applied and was hired for a teaching position at Ferry Academy, an all-girls boarding school in Chicago. Installed in the city, she began to visitRumpfhaus, a settlement house founded and managed by a well-known social reformerJane Addams. Perkins changed her name from Fannie to Frances and devoted as much time as possible to her work at Hull House.

After three years in Illinois, Perkins took a job in Philadelphia with an organization that studied the social conditions of young women and African Americans working in the city's factories.

Then, in 1909, Perkins received a scholarship to study at graduate schoolUniversity of ColumbiaIn NYC. In 1910 she completed her master's thesis: A study of malnourished children attending a school in Hell's Kitchen. After completing her dissertation, she began working for the New York office of the Consumers' League, becoming involved in campaigns to improve labor conditions for the city's poor.

political awakening

On March 25, 1911, a Saturday afternoon, Perkins attended tea at a friend's apartment in Washington Square in New York's Greenwich Village. The sounds of a terrible commotion reached the apartment, and Perkins ran a few blocks to the Asch building on Washington Place.

A fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a clothing factory that employed mostly young immigrant women. Locked doors to prevent workers from resting kept the victims on the 11th floor, where fire department ladders could not reach them.

(Video) Women's History: Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, in the crowd on a nearby sidewalk, witnessed the terrifying spectacle of young men falling to their deaths to escape the flames. Unsafe conditions at the factory claimed 145 lives. Most of the victims were working-class youth and immigrant women.

The New York State Factory Commission of Investigation was formed months after the tragedy. Frances Perkins was hired as an investigator for the commission and was soon leading factory inspections and reporting on health and safety conditions. The job suited her career aspiration and led to a working relationship with Al Smith, a New York City representative who served as vice chairman of the commission. Smith later became governor of New York and eventually the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928.

political focus

In 1913, Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson, who worked in the New York Mayor's Office. She kept the surname, partly because she gave speeches in support of better working conditions and did not want to risk her husband becoming involved in controversy. She had a son who died in 1915, but a year later she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Perkins anticipated that she would retire from her professional life and devote herself to being a wife and mother, perhaps voluntarily for various purposes.

Perkins' plan to retire from public service changed for two reasons. At first her husband suffered from mental attacks and she felt compelled to keep working. Second, Al Smith, who became a friend, was elected governor of New York in 1918. Smith seemed clear that women would soon have the right to vote, and it was a good time to hire a woman for a major role in the election. state government. Smith appointed Perkins to the Industrial Commission of the New York State Department of Labor.

While working for Smith, Perkins became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As Roosevelt recovered from polio, Perkins helped him keep in touch with union leaders and began advising him on the matter.

Appointed by Roosevelt

After Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, he appointed Perkins to head the New York State Department of Labor. Indeed, Perkins was the second woman to hold the office of New York governor (Florence Knapp briefly served as Secretary of State under Al Smith). The New York Times noted that Perkins was promoted by Roosevelt because he believed she had "made a very good record" in her position in state government.

During Roosevelt's tenure as governor, Perkins became known nationally as the authority on laws and regulations governing labor and business. When an economic boom ended and the Great Depression began in late 1929, less than a year after Roosevelt's tenure as governor, Perkins faced a startling new reality. She immediately began making plans for the future. She took steps to deal with the effects of the Depression on New York State, and she and Roosevelt essentially prepared for how they might perform nationally.

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After Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, he appointed Perkins Secretary of Labor for the country, and she became the first woman to serve in a President's cabinet.

Paper no New Deal

Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, declaring that Americans had "nothing to fear but fear themselves." The Roosevelt administration immediately took action to combat the effects of the Great Depression.

Perkins led efforts to set up unemployment insurance. She also pushed for higher wages for workers as a measure to stimulate the economy. One of his first major actions was overseeing the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which became known as the CCC. The organization took in unemployed young people and put them into conservation projects across the country.

Frances Perkins' greatest achievement is generally considered to be her work in devising the plan that became the Social Security Act. There was much opposition to the idea of ​​Social Security in the country, but the law passed Congress and was signed by Roosevelt in 1935.

Decades later, in 1962, Perkinsgave a speechentitled "The Roots of Social Security" in which she detailed the struggle:

"Once you get a politician's ear, you get something real. Intellectuals can talk forever and nothing happens. People give them a good-natured smile and let it go. Make things happen."

In addition to his work in shaping legislation, Perkins has been at the center of labor disputes. At a time when the labor movement was nearing the peak of its power and strikes were often in the news, Perkins became extremely active in her role as Labor Secretary.

threatened with impeachment

1939 Conservative members of Congress, including Martin Dies, leader of theHouse Committee on Un-American ActivitiesHe launched a crusade against them. She prevented the quick deportation of an Australian leader of the West Coast Longshoremen's Union, Harry Bridges. He was accused of being a communist. As it went on, Perkins was accused of communist sympathies.

(Video) Restoring Economic Growth 1934 Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins

Members of Congress requested an impeachment trial against Perkins in January 1939, and hearings were held to decide whether the impeachment charges were merited. Ultimately, Perkins' career stood up to the challenge, but it was a painful episode. (Although the tactic of deporting labor leaders had been used before, the evidence against Bridges fell apart during a trial and he remained in the United States.)

Outbreak of World War II

On December 7, 1941, Perkins was in New York City when she was ordered to return to Washington immediately. She attended a cabinet meeting that evening where Roosevelt told his administration the seriousness of the situation.attack on Pearl Harbor.

at the beginning ofSecond World WarAmerican industry shifted from the production of consumer goods to war material. Perkins remained Secretary of Labor but her role was not as prominent as before. Some of its main goals, such as a national health insurance program, have been abandoned. Roosevelt felt he could no longer spend political capital on domestic programs.

Perkins, exhausted from her long tenure and feeling that further goals were out of reach, planned to leave office in 1944, but Roosevelt asked her to stay after the 1944 election. When he won a fourth term, she stayed in office. the ministry of labour.

On Sunday afternoon, April 12, 1945, Perkins was at home in Washington when he received an urgent call from the White House. Upon her arrival, she was informed of President Roosevelt's death. She decided to leave the government, but went on a transitional period, remaining in the Truman administration for a few months until July 1945.

Later career and legacy

President Harry Truman later asked Perkins to return to government. She took over as one of three civil service commissioners overseeing the federal workforce. She continued this work through the end of the Truman administration.

After her long career in government, Perkins remained active. she taughtCornell University, and spoke frequently on government and labor issues. In 1946 she published a book,The Roosevelt I knew, which was a generally positive reminder of working with the late President. However, she never published a full account of her own life.

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In the spring of 1965, at the age of 85, his health began to fail. She died on May 14, 1965 in New York City. Notable political figures, including President Lyndon Johnson, have paid tribute to her and her work in helping bring America back from the depths of the Great Depression.


  • "France Perkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., Vol. 12, Storm, 2004, pp. 221-222. Virtual Gale Reference Library.
  • "Perkins, Frances." Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 2: Biographies, UXL, 2003, pp. 156-167. Virtual Gale Reference Library.
  • "Perkins, Frances." American Decades, herausgegeben von Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 5: 1940–1949, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Downey, Kirstin.The woman behind the New Deal. Double Day 2009.


What was Frances Perkins role in the cabinet? ›

As secretary, Perkins oversaw the Department of Labor. Perkins went on to hold the position for 12 years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor. She also became the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States, thus she became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession.

Who was the first female cabinet member and what position did she hold? ›

Frances Perkins served as Secretary of Labor in the Cabinet of President Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a Cabinet position.

Why was Frances Perkins significant quizlet? ›

Frances Perkins was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition.

Who was the first woman to serve in the cabinet *? ›

Frances Perkins as the first female Cabinet member during the history of our country. She served for 12 years as Secretary of Labor. She repeatedly— and I speak from experience—demonstrated the wisdom of Presi- dent Roosevelt's action.

Who was the first president to appoint a woman to his Cabinet quizlet? ›

Thirty-one Presidents had named more than 300 Cabinet officers before Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first woman to that body: Frances T. ("Ma") Perkins, who served as secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945.

Who was the only woman in the Cabinet after independence? ›

After India's independence, Amrit Kaur became part of Jawaharlal Nehru's first Cabinet; she was the first woman to hold Cabinet rank, serving for ten years. In January 1949, she was appointed a Dame of the Order of Saint John (DStJ). She was assigned the Ministry of Health.

What impact did Charles Perkins have on the civil rights movement? ›

The world had just witnessed the 1961 US Civil Rights Freedom Riders, who had ridden buses in a challenge to racial segregation on public buses. Charlie and a few other students saw this and, inspired, kicked off their own Freedom Ride in 1965.

Who was the first who was the first woman President? ›

Chief Justice of India K. G. Balakrishnan administering the oath of office to new President Pratibha Patil.

Who was the first person to use the term cabinet? ›

The group came to be known as the cabinet based on a reference made by James Madison, who described the meetings as “the president's cabinet.”

Who was the first President to bring together a cabinet? ›

The First Cabinet

George Washington's cabinet included four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.

Who was in Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet? ›

Cabinet of President Theodore Roosevelt
September 14, 1901–March 3, 1905 (Term 1)
InteriorEthan Allen Hitchcock
AgricultureJames Wilson
Commerce and Labor*George Bruce Cortelyou (from February 16, 1903)
Victor Howard Metcalf (from July 1, 1904)
30 more rows
Feb 8, 2023

Which President was known for his kitchen cabinet? ›

The Kitchen Cabinet was a term used by political opponents of President of the United States Andrew Jackson to describe his ginger group, the collection of unofficial advisors he consulted in parallel to the United States Cabinet (the "parlor cabinet") following his purge of the cabinet at the end of the Eaton affair ...

Who helped organize the black cabinet? ›

At the time, racial discrimination barred African Americans from Cabinet-level service. However, Mrs. Bethune organized the agency heads into a council of presidential advisors, also known as FDR's “Black Cabinet.”

Who were the first 4 cabinet members? ›

George Washington's cabinet included four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.

Who were the first 5 cabinet members? ›

Washington held his first full cabinet meeting on November 26, 1791, with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. One prominent individual who did not attend cabinet meetings was Vice President John Adams.

What were original 3 cabinets of President? ›

The original cabinet included only four members, a lot smaller than the 16 cabinet members today! Their positions were: Attorney General, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Secretary of Treasury. The first Attorney General was Edmund Randolph.

Who was the first cabinet member? ›

On that day, the president of the United States sent his first cabinet nomination to the Senate for its “advice and consent.” Minutes later, perhaps even before the messenger returned to the president's office, senators approved unanimously the appointment of Alexander Hamilton to be secretary of the treasury.

Why did Jackson fire his cabinet? ›

These divisive actions resulted in Jackson showing favor only to those who socialized with the Eatons and proved their loyalty to him in other ways. To rid himself of the immediate controversy, Jackson dismissed his entire cabinet in 1831 except for the Postmaster General.

Does the President have his own kitchen in the White House? ›

Though the White House comes with its own chef—which comes with the residence—presidents and their families must pay for their own food. First Lady Michelle Obama confirmed this in a 2018 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Here are 8 perks U.S. presidents get to keep after leaving office.

Who made up the first Cabinet quizlet? ›

The existence of the Cabinet dates back to the first President of the United States, George Washington, who appointed a Cabinet of four people:Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton; Secretary of War Henry Knox; and Attorney General Edmund Randolph to advise him and to assist ...

Who was the first African American to serve in the Cabinet holding the post of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development? ›

Robert C. Weaver became the nation's first black Cabinet member when President Johnson appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966.

Who was the Cabinet and what was one of their important duties? ›

The Cabinet's role is to advise the President on any subject he or she may require relating to the duties of each member's respective office.


1. Rediscovering Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal
2. PPL Reads Women's History Biographies: Frances Perkins
(Portland Public Library)
(Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.)
4. Perkins Becomes Labor Secretary - 1933 | Today In History | 4 Mar 18
(AP Archive)
5. Frances Perkins "The woman behind the New Deal"
(National New Deal Preservation Association)
6. Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare
(Mick Caouette)
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